Bernard’s Grandmother, 1887

Emile Bernard (1868-1941)

  • Oil on Canvas, 53 x 64 cm
  • Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
    (Vincent van Gogh Stichting)

Mrs Bodin-Lallement, Emile Bernard’s grandmother, played a major role in his life. Unlike Bernard’s parents she supported her grandson’s artistic aspirations. The old lady can be regularly found in Bernard’s work. Here he has painted her portrait in a style which recalls a Japanese print, with a composition based on well-defined contours and planes of colour. Thanks to the influence of his friend Van Gogh, Bernard had become fascinated by Japanese prints.

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In 1884 Bernard came to Paris, where he became a pupil of Fernand Cormon. In Cormon’s studio he met Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Louis Anquetin. Although Bernard initially worked in the pointillist style of George Seurat, his interest in Japanese prints led him to develop a style that became known as ‘Cloisonnisme’. This term is derived from a type of medieval enamel work in which melted coloured glass is applied to a base between metal partitions.
Planes of colour and well-defined contours are also characteristics of the work produced by both Van Gogh and Gauguin during the late 1880s. They abandoned traditional perspective and spatial modelling in favour of decorative compositions that resemble stained glass windows.


Bernard’s grandmother in its turn provided Van Gogh with inspiration when he painted his Old woman of Arles. Van Gogh was very fond of this work by Bernard, which he had acquired from his younger colleague in exchange for one of his self-portraits. In a letter Van Gogh even compared Bernard’s painting with portraits by Rembrandt. The picture was also displayed at the exhibition which Van Gogh organised in 1887 in the Restaurant du Chalet on the Boulevard du Clichy. The exhibition included work by artists such as Paul Gauguin, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Louis Anquetin, alongside pictures by Bernard and Van Gogh himself.
In the company of these ‘Impressionnistes du Petit Boulevard’ Van Gogh distinguished himself from the ‘Impressionnistes du Grand Boulevard’. This last group comprised artists such as Monet, Sisley, Degas and Renoir whose pictures were displayed at the art dealers’ gallery on the Boulevard Montmartre, where Vincent’s brother Theo worked.

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